Screenplay

Tantrums of the Water Czar’s

Yesterday’s front-page headlines reported that six of seven states have agreed to a new framework to cut back on the amount of water they use from the Colorado River. Six is pretty good—

There’s this Kighlinger negotiator, he is a former Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District manager, he knows the score, he sees the writing on the wall, and is trying with all his might to get the Imperial Valley Irrigation District to face reality. That is no small feat when trying to negotiate with the grand pooh-bah of water rights holders. 

Kighlinger is among the many that believe the priority system foisted upon the region more than a century ago can no longer be used as a model for how water is allocated. The heart of the matter— if you use 80% of the water, then you should be contributing close to the same 80% back in economic benefits, not at best a measly 5% return on the people’s water.

Cotton and Irrigation Ditch—Totally Insane

Alex Cardenas, the president of the board of directors of the Imperial Irrigation District, what he wants you to know is that he represents a group of farmers that hold water rights that go back so far in history that they predate the formation of the universe, they existed before the Big Bang, this isn’t just the before times, this is before the before times, this is all eternity— and they are not going to be pushed around by some uppity federal agency. Farmers in the Imperial Valley are hot under the collar, ready to brawl, won’t be surrendering their senior most status to some junior subordinated water rights holders that they believe are out to do the same thing they have been doing for the last 100 plus years. Water grabbers of the world unite!

Here, let’s listen to Mr. Cardenas explain, “We’re not going to wreck our local economy so that they can continue to grow their urban economy.”

This is how senior water rights holders speak, this is our nation’s Water Nobility, another way of saying this is that some farmers have come to believe that the water they use comes with zero strings attached, and not you and not nobody may ever question how they use the nation’s resources.

From my fictional perspective I feel my script towing reality’s line. I have been drawing up a screenplay and Mr. Cardenas not only plays the part I’ve imagined but he makes my work easy, I don’t even have to write the dialogue, his quotes write the script for me.

I’m still predicting the Bureau of Reclamation will keep its head low until after the President gives the State of the Union speech. In the next few weeks, I forecast the conflict to escalate, and by grow more tense I mean the stuff is going to hit the fan.

I’ll leave you with the wit and wisdom of this water professional and come on now let’s hear it for this brave soul who has had the brass to tell the truth and call out the madness about how they want to use all the water and return almost nothing to the economy in return. As this cool cat Kighlinger said— that’s a fucking disaster— that just can’t be our reality—

Water like whiskey even after a century is still worth fighting over—

Screenplay

Beyond Imagination/All Too Real

In 1922 expert hydrologists estimated the Colorado River to produce 16.5 million acre feet of water per year, and it was then that when the Compact of the River was created it assigned half of the water to the upper basin and the other half to the lower basin.

In 2022 hydrologists armed with real world data peg the river’s output to be half that much. The upper and lower basins are now trying to figure out how in the hell they’re going to manage with so little water and so much demand.

To give you some idea of how colossal this task is there are a small number of farms in the very southeastern tip of California. Together these few farms by law have legal access to 4 million of the total 8 million acre acre feet of the Colorado’s water. That legally binding allotment is pretty much a great big fat emergency right there.

The agricultural water grabbing has meant Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Tucson have been left to hold the short end of the water scarcity stick— subordinated water rights is the term of art.

What negotiators have been unable to do is convince any stakeholder with these oldest senior most water rights to voluntarily give their allocations back. The legal framework, the so called Law of the River required decades to sort out and it appears this hot mess is headed back into an legal quagmire that remains anyone’s guess how things might be sorted out.

What makes this such a disaster is that there is not enough time to go to court and then plod clumsily over years to decades of time to come to new potentially irrelevant terms. One tipping point should the water flow continue to decline is a river that never makes it beyond Hoover Dam.

A century ago Hoover Dam engineers never contemplated needing to build tunnels beneath the dam. Water in both Lake Powell and Lake Mead suffer from the same design flaw, without sufficient supply there is no feasible way to move water further down river. Engineers never planned for too little or too much, the dams were scaled to account for what was then estimated as modest variations.

Climate change has all to do with the reduction in the Colorado River’s output, and there is no choice, we have to live with the finite precipitation we get. Experts think the Federal government must declare a state of emergency and mandate steep reductions up and down the river basin. That is a theory of course, stakeholders don’t know if the courts would go along and if they don’t there’s going to be a horrible collision of law, water and special interests. Then there still is the problem that the water could end up stuck behind Hoover Dam where it would be impossible to release regardless of what the court’s decide.

That’s why they always talk about nature having the last word, or that Mother Nature bats last, it simply doesn’t matter what some water rights holder wants or by what authority a court has to enforce their decisions.

If and when the Colorado River does end up stuck behind Lake Mead, if litigation spirals out of control, the whole hot stinking mess turns the Southwest into an environmental crisis of a kind never seen by a modern advanced world’s largest economy.

Some predict engineers should immediately start digging tunnels that send water around Hoover and Glen Canyon to forestall such a disaster. Do that starting now. Emergency pipelines would be constructed at the same time. Water would be sent on an emergency basis to quench the thirst of urban population centers while leaving rural agricultural water users high and dry. The first people to inhabit this region faced a similar fate 1000 years ago. Our first people simply had to pickup and leave, the omnipotent modern capitalists suffer from a misguided hubris, they have suspended disbelief, it simply defies imagination, our titans of commerce believe we cannot and will not run out of water.

The opposite scenario is equally as terrifying, equally as dangerous— the potential irony of the thing would simply go lost in the tragic consequences of such an event. Here we go— Alarmed researchers have found that in 1884 the Colorado River Basin received 2 years of rainfall in just 4 months. Instead of an average of 16.5 million acre feet of water measured on a per year basis, in 1884 it is estimated that a total of 32 million acre feet of water swept down the river in a period of just four months. This is decades before the dams were constructed.

Drenching rainfall totals of this magnitude could bring such monumental amounts of runoff that water could overtop and then completely demolish the dams at Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams.

This kind of epic precipitation is calculated to be a one in every 500 year event, with the last super soaker occurring about 140 years ago.

The potential destruction of the two big dams has spurred scientists to propose removing Glen Canyon Dam now and then enlarging the spillways at Hoover Dam, and many experts believe we must do this now before it is too late.

As of the end of January California has been drying after a month of pummeling by powerful atmospheric river fed storms. If by the once in five-hundred year odds California were hit with four months of atmospheric river fed storms the calamity would clobber the American West— this is the epic atmospheric knock-out blow of all natural disasters.

In the 1800’s a storm fed Los Angeles River swollen by relentless rains jumped its banks and sent its water south on a path 20 miles off its normal course— the devastation was immeasurable. North of LA so much rain and snow fell that the Central Valley from Bakersfield north to Redding inundated the region making this whole region one big temporary lake that was for some months navigated by large paddle boats.

Were the Los Angeles River to jump its banks and once again head 20 miles off course it would wipe out the the most productive economic zone in the United States, instantly zeroing out at least $3 trillion in economic activity. That’s an enormous loss, nearly one fifth of the nations entire economic output. Lives and livelihoods would be lost, homes would be destroyed, commercial enterprise zones would be devastated and Southern California’s ports in Long Beach and Los Angeles would require decades to repair and reopen.

That is what worries California’s Department of Water Resources, not just the drier and then wetter storms that are hitting our state but the all too real risk that we could be pummeled by equally powerful droughts and floods of a magnitude that makes the region unmanageable. A natural disaster of either kind could itself be the natural disaster’s knockout blow to maintaining our grip on being a civilized country.

The Bureau of Reclamation in Washington is about to mandate new cuts in water up and down the entire length of the Colorado River. Legal scholars are unsure if these cuts would hold up if challenged in court. The Bureau’s decision could drop at any moment now.

Either way, engineers are urgently advocating for reinforcing spillways on the dams and that this work needs to get underway immediately. An uncontrolled topping of the dams by flood risks everything.

If the drought persists they are also urging  that new underground tunnels be built. Deep underground tunnels like this have never been attempted.

This is the pickle we find ourselves in. It is a damned if we do, damned if we don’t corner we find ourselves backed into. If you have ever stood at the rim of the Grand Canyon then you have experienced the aching beauty and the unfathomable immensity, you have stood there in awe feeling the sweep of time, you can see a river that has carved a 50 million year deep canyon one mile deep into the rock of a continent.

The Colorado River and her water is as big a problem as problems get. The scale of our troubles dwarfs our imagination, we are not designed to comprehend such stupendous events, the common man is not built to react to catastrophic occurrences of such size, scale that may or by chance may not occur over such a lengthy event horizon. So far we’ve stalled, we’ve waited, we’ve hoped and we’ve delayed. That is a fool’s game, a gamblers losing bet, the smart money urges us to face up to the facts.

Books

Big Drought Little Time

California by treaty receives the largest allocation of water from the Colorado River. These are “senior” rights. A stakeholder with subordinated rights is out of luck, in the sun, and destined for hell. The megadrought has let the cat out of the bag and now across the American West our water distribution system is unable to respond— this is water’s version of the deer in headlights moment. 

Stark Beauty

Litigation is slow. The “Millennium Drought”— this dryer and hotter pattern has persisted for 22 years— stakeholders have been dragged to the negotiating table kicking and screaming— the clock is ticking, the water levels on Lake Powell continue falling— the jig is up, the moment of reckoning is here. 

What is terrifying is a desperate subordinated water rights claim held by a water agency in a major metropolitan area could find its supply completely cutoff. The court’s hands would be tied, the law as written could trigger a catastrophic climate induced humanitarian disaster. Pitting a handful of farms in California against a bone-dry Arizona city is something everyone agrees needs to be avoided. Forty million people in the American West depend on the water from the Colorado River. Unknotting this tangled web is a task that will require ungodly quantities of water and time. This relentless drought is dragging the region into the mother of all water wars. 

Go down to any neighborhood saloon. Select a handful of average citizens. Put the facts down on the table. Here’s the water, this is how much we’ve got, this is where it goes, these are the various stakeholders, here’s how much each has been promised, here’s how much there actually is, and what dear neighbor should the nation do? 

Holding your breath won’t work, hoping it will rain isn’t a plan, depending on the summer monsoons is delusional, even if there was an above average year, the immutable fact is the Colorado River is a finite resource, and with each passing year the river yields less water to an ever-thirstier American Southwest. 

Every single precious drop that falls from the sky that is used in Colorado is another drop of water that will never make its way downriver to Arizona, Nevada, Utah and California. Have you seen Colorado in the last few years— how many more people live there— how much more water is diverted near the river’s headwaters, that never makes its way downriver to the states of Nevada, Utah, Arizona and California.

Lake Powell was never a good idea, from its inception there were political forces afoot at the Bureau of Reclamation fueling the drive to construct the dam that should have never been built. Now whether the dam should have been built is a pointless waste of time, the science is in, the situation isn’t going to change, the lake is doomed.

Eight out of every ten gallons of Colorado River water is used by agriculture, and eight out of ten of all those gallons are destined for forage crops, the most valuable of those is alfalfa. Producing meat and dairy takes a lot of water. Only two of every ten gallons is used to grow all the other food that ends up on our kitchen tables. 

The great Southwest expedition leader John Wesley Powell had told leaders long ago, like in 1880’s that this region would not support large scale ranch and farm operations. His advice was ignored. The Law of the River dates to 1922— when there were all of 6.4 million people living in the seven western states. Today forty-million people are dependent on this vital watershed. 

Democracy is on the ballot this November. Anti-democracy forces within the Republican Party are ascendent. A lot of ink is spilled over the situation on our southern border with Mexico and the efforts to stim the tide of immigrants seeking to enter this country. Whipping up Republican voters on this issue is misplaced, it’s the shortage of water, that’s our emergency, reallocating the water from the Colorado River is going be the political hot potato of this new century. 

Expect the Bureau of Reclamation to keep its head low until after the November election, that’s my prediction, then after they’ll announce cutbacks— they will be historic. The Supreme Court will end up having to weigh in. Bankruptcies will ripple up and down along the Colorado River basin as operators are disrupted by the lack of water. Negotiations between the seven states, 30 tribes and Mexico will prove to be intractable. The current regulatory apparatus is broken, archaic, ill-suited to the task. Not the Federal Government. or the State Water Resource Agencies can deliver water to customers that no longer exists. Negotiations will prove futile, litigation will grind on for much of the decade, even still after all the pain and tumult caused by the drought in the end there will be much less water coming down the Colorado River. Pretending there is some sort of work-around isn’t policy, it is denial.

The best way forward is to release the remaining water from Lake Powell (currently it is 25% full) and store it in Lake Mead. Then, repurpose Lake Powell, there is a proposal to make this area a national park, it would be called Glen Canyon National Park. Pipelines would need to be reconfigured to supply water to city of Page and the Navajo Nation. The upheaval in the farm and ranch industry will be ongoing. Rural citizens will be hard hit. Like Nevada’s boom and bust mining industry we should expect there to be more ghost towns. 

Farms that grow vegetables will replace the alfalfa producers. Water efficient laboratory meat production will replace conventional ranching. As we build out our new energy system, we’ll build in good paying jobs to replace those that will have been lost from a lack of water. This reckoning has been a long time coming, it is here, it is time, and it is happening. Our climate emergency is complex, multifaceted, and leaving no corner of our world untouched. Time to put our most talented to work on adapting to the change. That deer in the headlights moment— that’s all of us staring down the threat to civilization’s survival. Lake Powell is telling us we haven’t a choice, our time is up, that we must roll up our sleeves and get to work. There’s not a second to lose.

Books

Reporting from the American West

If you want to work in the news business, you’ll be aiming for a gig on the East Coast. You’ll want to work in New York City or Washington DC. That’s primetime baby cakes, where the biggest and bad-est fish swim. The writers that crack this nut and land a gig just got to feel a sense of having made it to the fattest pay checks. The East Coast hot shots are an elite horde of writers covering a geographic area of a mere few thousand square miles. Still this nation-centric view from our major media outlets provides a much less engaged regional population with those pieces of information they’ll need to know if we have any hope of keeping the wheels on this democracy from falling off this bus of self-governance.

Big jobs require big equipment

Trying to cover the important events out here on this other coast, and this nearby interior region, that’s a John Ford— Darling Clementine— of a job— literally we’re talking about covering the happenings on millions upon millions of acres, more than a handful of important cities, and a whole host of vital political, social and economic forces that shape our nation’s narrative. We’re not all out here drinking whiskey, riding bareback and dipping our toes into the local hot spring. Instead of the news we make digital devices, search engines and social media platforms that have turned our access to information into an out-of-control firehose of partly truth and partly fiction.

To keep in touch with our rural communities I surf the web, when driving across Nevada I’ll pull off the highway, get out of my van, sit down and chit chat with the local hard nuts. Sometimes a tobacco chewing hay farmer might dismiss my questions, rate me as an urban interloper, but more often I find that even that jacked up rural wise guy is concerned about the new nickel mine going in on the same watershed he’s getting his water from. 

Moscow, Idaho street music scene— who knew

Fossil fuel news is odd out here, it takes some realigning your point of view to swallow these gushers. Forget about the environment, that’s not news a front-page editor in Casper, Wyoming can use. More likely it is this moratorium on new leases that will make the cut. Rural communities across Wyoming, Montana, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado want to know what’s going to come of their lives out here and if there’s still any money left to be made drilling, digging or refining fossil fuels. This constituency is all too well represented back in the beltway of broken dreams. 

These are the blips on the radar, the scattered rising and falling indicators of a rural community’s potential economic viability. Water plays the same role. Wildfire, floods, droughts, insect invasions, and fatal traffic accidents don’t rate even a second look, it’s the community billboards that is regarded as Bible here. For sale: mini-Nubian goats— good girls, floppy eared, buttery milkers, disobedient, devoted all heartbreaking barnyard hellraisers, but “neighbor they’re a good business bet.” 

Rare as the wind on the wings of a butterfly— sweet water

Senior editor desk types in Los Angeles at the Times, that’s another level. Getting water to the cities in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego County that’s the other side of the scarce resources story that pervades the American West. It’s news when the batting order for the San Francisco Giants tanks, and its news when reading about the latest failed salmon run that’s trying to be restored along the ever over tapped Sacramento River.

Chris Mathews of Hardball fame once worked for the San Francisco Examiner. His opinion pieces were published in the City’s afternoon paper. Still, Mathew’s column was a backwater, on the margins, once in a while his latest posting might blow up, go national but those were rare, Chris was just biding his time. When was the last time a printed newspaper headline held in your two hands changed the arc of your morning coffee— as I said, you can’t remember.

Little Ray of Hope

The intermountain town of Pagosa Springs in Southern Colorado is trying hard to save itself, the beauty that attracts so many new citizens is smothering what is so charming here. Outside of town you’ve got rural farm operations, most is hay crop, and is now common due to the drought, the sourcing of water is hard to come by, Pagosa Springs is hard pressed to find more, new homeowners setting up lives here are a mixed blessing or curse. Harder than finding water here is affording to fully fund the water treatment facilities. There are a lot of testy city business meetings here. 

Pagosa Springs, Durango, Gunnison, Crested Butte, Glenwood Springs, Steamboat Springs, Salida, Breckenridge, Leadville— Colorado mountain towns, and not even the most famous, they’re not Aspen, Vail or Telluride, but they’ve been changing, growing, in the last twenty years they’ve been exploding in size, the changes have been exponential. 

One thing is for certain, even if you don’t care not one fig about the environment most sentient beings do understand that once a rural community exceeds a certain density and population, the disposing of human waste by septic system invites all manner of calamity. 

California senators Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein secured protection for vast tracts of the Mojave Desert. That’s 30 million acres of misunderstood and much beloved desertscape. I could explain the Mojave Desert in detail, but you don’t have the spare time, band width or bug repellent— the East Coast scribes what they want to know is how does this far off desolate, waterless, wasteland play into their New York-DC narrative— and for that there are two magic words— Harry Reid. The Majority Leader from Searchlight, Nevada, the pugnacious one-time boxer turned Nevada’s most powerful politician put the American West front and center and onto the pages of our leading newspapers. You almost felt like you could understand Nevada by reading what Harry Reid had to say about his opponents, but I promise you there is no understanding Nevada, not now and not ever. That requires coming to Nevada, sleeping in her forlorn motels, not in Las Vegas but in Beatty, Tonopah or Ely. 

Reporting from the Mojave Desert

Running the show, my juggling show past these locals, now that’s a story, it is also a way of knowing, not just an audience, knowing a place, a community, how they do their doing and why what they’re doing isn’t necessarily conforming to your line of thinking. Rounding up mustang is like that. 

Joking with an audience in Sydney, Montana is as fine an entry point into American West understanding as any you might find gleaming on the asphalt like a lost dime. Most of this land is used to grow wheat, by rain not by irrigation. Farmers stand up their fate to what the chances of rainfall can bring. Sydney citizens know farming luck better than a pesky fly’s survival on the windowsill of a tanning salon. 

And that my friends, that’s why covering this beat will take your breath, spare ink and reams of paper away. This story is that big! Big as Hoover Dam, big as the Grand Canyon, big as Pilot Peak, as old as the ancient Bristlecone pines. 

The biggest story out here is the climate emergency. We know this story, it is told through wildfires, empty reservoirs, heatwaves and the brewing trouble between the seven states that share the waters of the Colorado River. In 1922 after some very difficult legal wrangling there were put in place a series of decisions that are referred to as the Law of the River. For the next 100 years this landmark decision has been upheld by the courts and the states. As is always the case politicians over the course of the last 100 years have overpromised while the rain and snowfall under delivered. 

There is one more piece to this puzzle worth weighing. We’ve got enough water for people that live out here, but we’re fast approaching the moment when we no longer have enough water for the farmers out here. Victims of wildfire in Santa Rosa, California have moved away to less fire prone regions where they will attempt rebuild their lives. These are some of America’s first climate emergency refugees. Next up are the farms and farmers that can no longer find enough water to stay in business. This isn’t just one town, one valley, off one river. The scale of this pullback will impact the entire American West, it will be historic, it will be epic and it will be a sprawling story that will sweep up almost half of the nation into unforeseeable change, not that we can’t see the change that is coming, but we can’t grasp the implications of these changes to the life and story of our nation. 

That’s what’s rumbling out here. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are small potatoes, this megadrought is about to deliver a severe blow, who it hurts and where it lands, that’s the question of this water scarce century.

Books

Colorado River Basin Blues

Federal officials from the Bureau of Reclamation gave Colorado River basin stakeholders until noon hour on August 16th to hash out a new water allocation deal. For the last 62 days water resource managers haggled, horse traded and gridlocked one another into sharing the pain losing access to water can bring. 

John Entsminger, general manager of the water authority and Nevada’s top Colorado River negotiator, tried cutting a deal but was unable to get anyone to negotiate. I think his way of explaining the mess was that none of the various stakeholders were making a good faith effort to negotiate, nobody was taking the crisis for what it is, a natural disaster of the first order— I think you’d describe the megadrought as historic.

California’s Imperial Valley and Palo Verde Valley are the systems championship water grabbers in this tragedy of the commons. Nearby Yuma on the Arizona side of the river has got its share of woes too. Parkers and Bullhead City are about to go through a few things and that’s the way it will just have to be.  

Back in June Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton told the seven western states to either come up with their own voluntary plan or otherwise Washington would go full draconian on their sorry little stubborn water using souls. That day arrived today.

Commissioner Touton keeps her head down and mouth closed, her job has been to set the terms of the negotiations and then let the states, tribes, and Mexico figure things out. These are the best of the best water management professionals all squeezed cheek to jowl into a Denver hotel meeting room with orders from high on up back in the states to do something, do anything, but for God’s sake the one thing not to do surrender even one drop of their current allocation, get some other stakeholder to take one for their team. 

Most of the problem is caused by the deal the seven states cut back in 1922. One hundred years ago during a wetter and cooler weather cycle they divided up the river water like there was and always would be plenty to go around. There have been a few rough patches in the last ten decades but the last two and a half decades, as we’ve entered into the teeth of the climate crisis, nearly one quarter of this past century has seen an ever decreasing less abundant river. 

I wouldn’t venture to even begin to explain how complicated the 1922 compact turned out to be, but most experts I follow can barely make even the slightest explanation of the tangled mess without speaking uninterrupted for at the least one hour’s time. With today’s announcement there will be immediate reductions in water deliveries with warnings that in the next 24 months further deeper cuts will need to be taken on top of the current cutbacks.

What we are all about to go through will be different and dependent on whether you live in a city or outside of town in the countryside. Urban and suburban water users use only fraction of all the water that comes down the Colorado River. It is the rural farm and ranch operators that are going to have to change how they do things, in some cases farms and ranches be shutting down altogether selling off their equipment, liquidating livestock and fallowing the land. 

Recreation along the river will be impacted and so too will wildlife habitat. Everyone will be paying higher prices for food and water bill’s will be going up. Cheery news indeed. Everyone knows about the hydroelectric power station at Hoover Dam, it is famous and produces a lot of electricity. Most expert forecasts see the power station becoming much less productive as the reduction in water will reduce the power the station can produce. 

Fortunate for us the renewable energy systems will be deployed to make up for whatever the 300 hydroelectric stations all up and down the Colorado River basin can no longer reliably produce. What we can’t do is make up for the missing water. 

Sure, why not, you’ll read about plans to make desalination plants along the coast of California, maybe pipe water up from the Sea of Cortez, build a desalination plant on the Salton Sea, the processed water would be expensive, too expensive to make sense to use for agriculture. High rollers in Las Vegas might enjoy buying access to this kind of fancy water but the ordinary working stiff is going to use less to keep their water bill down.

Lawyers from the region are preparing to draw up a new compact to replace the framework agreed to in 1922. There is no time and agreements as complex as this will require years, decades— if the basin stakeholders can ever come to terms is uncertain. Nobody wants this to be litigated, but there’s really no way around it, this is an intractable stalemate that will vaporize political careers and trigger untold emotional frustration. If water remains as tight as it is now the negotiations will likely be absurd, incredibly consequential, and result in some of the hardest choices any negotiator has ever attempted to settle. It remains a zero-sum game, if the Imperial Valley gets water some other valley doesn’t get water. The severity of this crisis is of such scale and scope to be unimaginable.

I’ll leave you to chew on this. Alfalfa is grown across the Colorado River basin. Alfalfa is the third largest crop across the United States with corn and soybeans holding the first and second positions. Alfalfa grows best in a hot climate and thrives when you can pour water on a alfalfa field like there is no tomorrow. By comparison corn and soybeans are insignificant in size in the Southwest. Wintertime in Yuma there is a sizable salad growing industry, it is important and where most all of the leafy greens we find in stores is sourced from. 

Alfalfa is used by the dairy industry. A milk cow thrives on alfalfa. Then there are foreign markets that buy our alfalfa and growers in the Imperial Valley have discovered they can haul alfalfa out of Long Beach on the cheap by shipping containers back to China and Vietnam. Let’s just not go down the rabbit hole of whether drinking cow’s milk is good for you or not, let’s leave that out of this tangled web for a moment. 

An ordinary household with a relatively normal American family, maybe they have a dog, cat even might have a swimming pool will use about 1 acre foot of water to run their house for a year. Now how much water does that farmer need to produce one acre of alfalfa? One acre of alfalfa requires about seven-acre feet of water. You with me still, come on don’t give up so easily. There are millions of acres of alfalfa grown in the Colorado River basin, from the Front Range to the Western Slope, from near Many Farms where the Navajo grow plenty, farms have been growing alfalfa in Central Arizona, it is an important crop, each cut on each acre, on average weights about 6 tons is worth $1500 and in the desert Southwest you can cut that acre up to 10 times per year so long as between each cut you can pour another seven-acre feet of water on that crop while it grows and gets ready to be harvested.

Some alfalfa is grown off underground aquifer water, most of that water is ancient and has accumulated over millions of years, hydrologists are sure this water is going to give out soon enough, can’t pump water out of the ground faster than it accumulates, eventually you are going to be pumping sand, and sooner than an alfalfa grower is willing to believe.

Even if you can imagine growing alfalfa for the local dairymen in the region, and some of our milk does end up being exported too, but even if you can wrap your head around growing alfalfa to make food that ends up on our kitchen table it is hard to imagine that so much of this crop ends up being exported overseas. Estimates are all over the place but right now we appear to be selling about one fifth of all the alfalfa we produce in the Southwest to foreign buyers. And that’s why I want you to forget about alfalfa and start to imagine swimming pools. Imagine millions of swimming pools full of water, I’m talking about a lot of water, enough to fill a reservoir the size of say maybe Lake Powell, you know something like the second largest water reservoir in the United States, one of the largest in the world, imagine all that water being used for swimming pools that end up over in some faraway place. In exchange for all that water a handful of growers are paid somewhere in the vicinity of a grand total of $3 billion dollars. Got that picture in your head now. That’s one hell of a lot of all our water that goes to the benefit of a mere handful of self-appointed over-entitled people.

We’ve got well over 40 million water users in the Colorado River basin that have agreed to let a few thousand alfalfa farmers siphon off most of Colorado River basin water, the water all of us depend on, this is water rightfully belong to all the citizens in these states, this is the people’s water that they are using to make a buck while assuming that this is somehow even remotely some kind of sensible deal.

And now you know what kind of mess all those fancy stakeholders have on their hands back in that hotel in Denver where for the last 62 days not one or another of them could figure out how in the world to untangle this tragedy that has fallen upon our region. Water grabbers are a painful lot, willing to inflict all manner of hell and cruel capitalism upon our natural resources. You can hardly believe our shipping all this water overseas at the expense of the many and to the benefit of a few is a fact, you have to take a moment, you have to stop what you are doing and think this madness through, see the fool crisis plain and naked as the day you were born. Time for change has arrived. We keep going the way we are we won’t call it the Mojave or the Sonoran— we’ll name it in honor of TS Elliott, it’ll be known as the Wasteland.

Books

American West Trickle Down

Dead Horse Point, Utah

Colorado River runoff is in climate change induced decline, Lake Powell is at 38% of capacity. Here is what is at risk. “Spanning parts of the seven states of Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming (Basin States), the Colorado River Basin (Basin) is one of the most critical sources of water in the West. The Colorado River and its tributaries provide water to nearly 40 million people for municipal use, supply water to irrigate nearly 5.5 million acres of land, and is the lifeblood for at least 22 federally recognized tribes (tribes), 7 National Wildlife Refuges, 4 National Recreation Areas, and 11 National Parks.” All of the water allocations are regulated by the Law of the River.

Up in the Klamath River Basin there is a different drought dynamic. Both the Klamath and Colorado rivers because of the megadrought have allocation agreements that are impossible to meet. There has long been tension on the Klamath, this latest drought is just the most recent trouble. Because of the much more complex water law on the Colorado it is difficult for a disgruntled water user to put a face on their water crisis.

In Klamath Falls there are several convenient faces pointed out for blame. Top of the list are the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Oregon Water Resources Board. Then predictably there are the indigenous people that have long lived in this basin, the tribes consist of the Modoc and the Yahooskin-Paiute people, known as the mukluks and numu. Non-indigenous citizens frustrations boil over, local sovereignty movements emerge, states rights advocates get their dander up, and talk of secession is floated in community meetups.

Molten Salt Towers Aglow

The problems on both river systems are identical, but on the Colorado River friction is spread out among 40 million. On the Klamath River basin the official population is 114,000, this is one quarter of one percent compared to the Colorado basin.The colossal Colorado’s economic impact on the region is enormous but it is this smaller river system the Klamath where matters other than economic may go off the rails with a bullhorn.

Here is the Law of the River on the Colorado. “The treaties, compacts, decrees, statutes, regulations, contracts and other legal documents and agreements applicable to the The Law of the River consists of allocation, appropriation, development, exportation and management of the waters of the Colorado River Basin are often collectively referred to as the Law of the River. There is no single, universally agreed upon definition of the Law of the River, but it is useful as a shorthand reference to describe this longstanding and complex body of legal agreements governing the Colorado River.”

Water activists on the Klamath who have had all of this years water cut to zero, with roots in ranching and farming need to put a face on their problems. Governors are picked on, Secretary of the Interior is hit, scientists from various agencies, to gain any traction the farmers and ranchers need a target for their frustrations.

The insurrection of January 6th has only cemented the impression something has gone haywire in our country. A few years ago the survival of our democracy wasn’t even on anyone’s radar screen.

What we know with some degree of certainty is that there is enough water out here in the American West for residential use. It is the commercial use of the water, it is the farmers and ranchers that will struggle to thrive and expand as water allocations are reduced year by year, some years by drought, other years by the swelling population.

Demographic projections in decades ahead warn the Colorado River basin population will grow to 79 million by 2070. If you are from Denver, Phoenix, Salt Lake City or Las Vegas firsthand experience with explosive growth tells you this trains coming, no cow- all bull full steam ahead.

What can we done? Laws will need to rewritten. We’re going to need to get with the Department of Agriculture and rejigger crop subsidies, and that’s going to trigger a wave of tantrums. The titans of agriculture will resist but there are no easy outs, this David and Goliath story is an epidemic in our country and time has come to slay the beast. Our century old water laws are outdated, drought and the climate emergency have rendered these rules unworkable. You want a tip? Get a degree in water law.

Where water has been over promised we’ll want to pull acreage out of production. We’ll want federal dollars used to buy back land. We’ll want to rationalize what crops we plant and decrease the total number of acres planted. Regenerative farming methods will become common. Water intensive crops like almonds, alfalfa, and dairy will be relocated to water abundant regions of the United States. Grazing cattle will become impractical as summer temperatures soar. Last weeks heatwave was recording setting. In the Mojave I was driving between Las Vegas and Barstow in 118*F.

June 16, 2021 hotter than blazes

Funding for programs can be solved by use of a carbon tax. Where a rural community has been hit by the decline in fossil fuels we’ll want to develop programs that diversify the economies of these communities.

Differences have grown between urban and rural regions of the American West. Since the pandemic spawned the work from home movement we need to incentivize our digital workers to be sprinkled out across the countryside. Corporations should support their workers spreading out. Pressure on housing would decrease in our urban zones and perhaps prices in our rural communities would benefit from a more robust growing population.

Many pieces of what I am proposing are in the hands of Biden’s Build Back Better infrastructure bill now working its way through Congress.

Factions that move populations by emotion, by fiery rhetoric, by putting an innocent face on this gigantic existential problem only slow down our ability to set our course for survival.

Sunrise over Searchlight, Nevada- Harry Reid’s hometown

I’ve been touring this region of the country since 1974. I’ve lived in the Verde Valley and farmed land in the Willamette Valley. I have hayed my own fields and loaded my own horse into my own trailer. I don’t take no backseat to anyone claiming they’ve earned some special rights or claim to be free to do whatever the hell they want to do. Frontier times are over and we will make do by cooperation and following rules.

My eyes have seen sunrises and sunsets that my camera can’t capture and my novels seldom do justice to, but I’m out here, constantly talking to folk, the janitors, teachers and horse whisperers. I get a fresh faced yo-yo champion to laugh at a trick dog’s stunt. I make camp in the loneliest corners of the Great Basin. I know hay farmers, barrel racers and organic strawberry growers. Much is unsettled and more turbulence is likely than less. Join with constructive groups, urge your political representatives to speak up about these matters, we can do this but not by tempest and tantrum. We’ll get by hard work and compassion. Saddle up partners we have a country to save.

 

Books

hot honey of a world

California’s rainy season begins in October and ends in May. During the dry season there are years where there won’t be a drop of rain for six months. Like the prevailing westerly winds off the Pacific Ocean, our weather pattern defines us.

From San Francisco it is twelve hours north to Portland, sixteen hours east to Salt Lake City, six hours south to Los Angeles. Each place is distinct, each has its own fashions, the same-same suburbs, one destination even comes with its own religion.

Phoenix in 1990 a million people by then had arrived with plans to stay. Sunbirds migrating south for winters acting like newcomer’s, the hardcore full timers holding a grudge impatient waiting for the Valley of the Sun to empty out. Phoenicians know another full timer even when they don’t. Scottsdale has a turquoise and sterling silver monied vibe, people from San Francisco coming here without the cooling fogs rolling over their pale hued skin wither and wilt. The chapped lips, the frizzy hairdos, faces beet red from too much sun. The Sonoran can be an unforgiving thorny venomous place. Welcome to the desert, now go home.

Vineyards have been planted in Wilcox, Sonoita and Cornville. Dedicated winemakers are producing world class wine.

The Hood River I knew is not the same place since windsurfing became a thing. The Dalles remains truer to form, older, a little less razzle dazzle, no supercharged go-go real estate, a storied place, sited along the Columbia, The Dalles is where you want to be from, you work up the spunk to leave, might go back, when you run out of luck.

Twin Falls is bigger but still not much changed. Sun Valley isn’t Idaho. Try Salmon, Lewiston, or Bonners Ferry if you want to find Idaho. Moscow is what I’d want Idaho to be, it is a blend of nothing the rest of Idaho wants. The Palouse is an acquired taste with a mere fraction touching Idaho, but once your palette shifts, once you understand the Palouse’s flavor, the sweep of mounds, slopes and sprawl of grass, here is a provocative serenity.

Took all of twenty years for the population of Bend, Oregon to have doubled to 100,000. Traffic on the highway back to Portland feels like its quadrupled.

I know of Steamboat Springs from stories my father told, where he grew up trout fishing and downhill skiing off Rabbit Ears Pass. Back in the day his boyhood town wasn’t even 500 people, now there are 13,000.

New Mexico’s Sierra Blanca rises 12,003 feet and is the highest southernmost alpine peak in the continental United States. Ruidoso is down at 7000 feet in the Sierra Blanca’s foothills. The Mescalero Apache nation is just south where the hard to come by headwaters of the Rio Ruidoso originate. The river flows at a rate of 900 gallons per minute. For context in Albuquerque the Rio Grande flows at a rate of 205,000 gallons per minute, and in Vancouver, Washington the Columbia flows at a rate of 76 million gallons per minute. Developers in Ruidoso hoping to expand can’t find water and without access to water there are no permits to build. Ruidoso is at or over the limit, depending on who you want to quarrel with.

Colorado Cattlemen’s Association have half a mind to lasso and brand Governor Jared Polis for having the temerity to set March 20, 2021 as “Meat Out Day.” The Governor thought he had a civic duty to promote the health benefits his constituents might enjoy if they ate a little less meat. This has set off a stampede of criticism. Cattlemen have vowed to circle the wagons. Tensions, consternation, and high blood pressure have forced the industry to draw a line in the sand no governor should dare cross. Texas longhorns are coming in, red angus are being pep talked, a shipment of Beyond Meat has been halted at the border and ordered to turn around and head right on back from where that load of counterfeit non-meat has come from.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association has published its worrisome forecast for spring. Rain and snow will be down, temperatures slightly up. La Niña deserves some blame, then there is the grinding change in our climate that is tending more to drought than flood, if it’s not one disaster it’s another. None of this is good news for nobody.

The twelve western states are bonded together by a climate that is aggravating the water supply. Access to drinking water is growing tighter here, there, and everywhere. Rural communities are feeling the pinch. Ranchers and farmers get out of bed put their boots on and work with the cards mother nature deals. To a one a rancher knows if this spring’s forecast holds up livestock will be grazing on parched rangeland. Getting the herd fat, hoping the waterholes don’t dry up, praying a heatwave doesn’t punish the headcount, having something to show for all their hard work is no certain thing.

Dairymen are in a fight for market share. Consumers are choosing almond milk more often and it’s putting pressure on dairymen. Isn’t possible to catch a break, not in this capitalism, not where the North Star disruption driven by free market fundamentalism grabs hold. States are tracking groundwater. Hay growers know what’s ahead, swelling urban populations are clamoring for access to a dwindling resource. Water rights are complex, litigation can span a decade, a tangled mess of special interests from seven western states are between now and 2025 in the process of reconsidering what to do about all the water that’s gone missing.

More citizens from Phoenix, San Diego, Los Angeles and Portland need to take up the cause of helping our rural communities. Traveling out to hike, fish and hunt isn’t going to buy one more book for the local library. Visitors passing through don’t see the gauntlet our rural citizens endure. Minimum wage ain’t nothing, sometimes you get paid for how many bales of hay you can buck. Sure, there are some cutting a fat hog, but plenty more are just scraping by, living on the land, each one with a fated story. I have met lonely workers stuck out there on station at some remote outpost, I know others near woebegone because they crave the solitude.

Neighbor in Oregon didn’t own land of his own. He did have a used tractor, worn out pickup truck, and a twenty-year-old John Deere combine harvester purchased at auction. He’d rent tracts other growers wouldn’t plant. Pain in the butt. Had to move his equipment from one plot to the next while his competition worked one big piece. Had a problem with a well pump that he sorted out, saved me from having to call a repairman. Broke my heart when his little girl doing chores was tossing feed to the horses when one turned and kicked, caught her in the forehead. Helicopter evacuated her to a hospital in Portland. Whether his girl would live was not certain, the blow was as awful a thing any father could ever imagine happening to his child.

This complicated big fat sloppy kiss of a world needs some tending to. Talking to people it is ordinary to learn that none are too pleased about this corner we’ve put ourselves in. Appears that this change will test our will. Painkillers won’t do, biting on a poker chip is too cruel, knowing the change is going to hurt like hell, still there’s no avoiding the fact surgery is needed, worse than pulling a tooth, more awful than taking a lung, mending will require patience and healing takes time, not every community, rural or urban will feel the same pain, but enough good citizens will pass the test, and I’m for one betting cooler heads will prevail.

Time, we get to doing what we’ve been putting off, fix this hot honey of a world, make her shine, get the love of survival gussied up, not so much for us, but for the folk who’ll be born into her, who’ll take over from where we’re going to be leaving off.